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The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Reopening Plan Is Modeled After An Unexpected Source

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library staff expresses its eagerness to return.

If you’ve been eager to go to the library to check out books or movies or simply escape, there is some somewhat good news: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library reopens Monday.

It's only somewhat good news because while you can finally return books that have been lying around your house and pick up items you might have placed on hold, the not-so good news is that the library experience won’t be anything like what you're accustomed to.

To limit contact and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, only one person will be allowed into a library branch at a time. You can pick up your items on hold, self-check out everything, and head out pretty quickly.

There will be no lingering or lounging or browsing for new books. Not yet.

Phase 1 of the reopening plan was based on another Charlotte-area business.

Caitlin Moen
Credit Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Caitlin Moen

“Actually, our first phase is pretty well based on how ABC stores have been running in Mecklenburg County,” said Caitlin Moen, Chief Customer Officer/Library Director, laughing.

Moen isn’t even officially on the job, yet – she starts her new role Monday, as well -- but she was tasked with figuring out how to navigate the library system through a pandemic no one has ever experienced before.

She took time to talk to WFAE about the four-phase reopening plan, which calls for a Phase 2 with expanded building access to begin July 1. All of it is subject to change based on the circumstances, of course.

A portion of the Q&A follows:

WFAE: What were ABC stores doing right that you wanted to replicate?

Moen: I felt it was really important to look at what others are doing and what they're doing well, what's working for others and kind of bring it into the library. We were in this conversation with the team that was working on it, and we were like, "Oh, well, you know, what did they (ABC) do?"

And so somebody said, “You know, I went and I had to wait outside and tell them what I wanted. And they went and got it. And then my husband couldn't go in. I was the only one allowed to go in, in order to check out. And I was like, “Oh, well, what if we looked at that and what if we adapted that model in order to fit what we can do?” You know, it helps having customers kind of used to the way different organizations are already offering services. If we kind of model after them, then it's a very familiar process.

WFAE: I saw you will have a 72-hour quarantine period for items checked in. How does that work? Books are so tactile, it seems as if it would be hard to disinfect them.

Moen: Yeah, so it does present a really unique challenge. And so you talk about surface contamination on any sort of surfaces, and there's all sorts of differing opinions on how long that can last. But then books are especially interesting because there's all the pages of the book and it's all kind of condensed, and then you add in plastic covers and DVDs and books on disk -- and then it's not all the same material, even.

And so, we've really looked at what the rest of libraries are using and doing, and a lot of folks are really leaning into the quarantine method. There's no real way to clean books effectively or sustainably. There's hundreds of thousands of books circulating in the Charlotte Mecklenburg area at any point. And so the idea of committing to disinfecting those in an effective way is really not very realistic.

So we'll use a quarantine method. We're far beyond what the minimum would be. We've leaned into the 72 hours in order to cover any sorts of plastic or anything else that's in there as well, kind of based on some CDC guidelines. Then what we'll do is, when people return the items, we'll stage them in the library for 72 hours, and then they'll get checked in and they'll come off of customers' accounts. So people see things stay on their accounts a little bit longer, but in the end, it'll mean a safer environment for our staff and our customers.

Credit Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

WFAE: Libraries are places where people really tend to gather as a community and linger, which is obviously hard to do right now. How do you decide when to move to that next phase and allow that?

Moen: So one thing that we're doing is we're watching how other industries are moving, as I said. Right now we're really kind of keeping eyes on these dine-in restaurants and how people are acting in dine-in restaurants, how the restaurants have changed their operations to make people safe and comfortable, and then to keep their staff safe. It's been really informative to watch what they're doing so far.

Meanwhile, I don't want to discount it, but we not only have this really expansive digital portfolio of virtual programs and digital collections -- we'll be expanding that. So our digital offerings aren't going anywhere. Our storytimes, our adult programming, our job help and resume review, programming, all of these things are actually going to ramp up as we open because our staff will have more capacity to build quality programs and offer those in a virtual environment.

WFAE: Does the coronavirus change the library experience forever? Or can we get back to how it used to be?

Moen: I have a very hopeful view. And I know a lot of library professionals are talking about this as, what does this mean for the future of libraries? Some of our critical charges are not going anywhere. And so when we can allow for computer classes to happen in libraries and people to linger here and have community here, of course, we will add it back in.

What I think is really going to change is the almost requirement or the expectation of that virtual and remote environment in conjunction with the physical space. Libraries have been on a digital climb over the last 10, 15, 20 years. As long as digital's been around, libraries have been a conduit for internet and digital materials and research online and databases and all these things. And what we're doing now is we're under pressure to recreate the physical experience online, and our goal is to take everything that is successful and sustainable that we're doing now and make it part of our normal world.

So it's a really exciting time to kind of envision. Although it's scary right now, I think we're on the pathway to something really good and really comprehensive and different.

This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.

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